Apr 18, 2014

Immerse in the problem

A couple of weeks back, I was chatting with a wannabe-startupper. The key problem he wants to solve is that consumers spend a lot of time on purchase decisions by visiting online e-commerce sites as well as offline retail stores. He plans to build a price aggregator (somewhat similar to what compareindia does). We discussed about many aspects of decision making including
- involvement level of product categories
- different stages involved
- showrooming behavior

During our chat, I did sense an urgency towards building the solution, rather than understanding the context and framing the problem statement. It's quite natural as engineers that we want to jump into the solution to the problem for which we have a reasonable understanding. But is this knowledge sufficient?

In this specific scenario, I suggested him to pursue a few initiatives in parallel to building out the solution.
- Narrow down a specific product category, preferably one that requires high involvement like consumer goods.
- Spend a few days in different retail stores, observing the conversations between potential consumers and salespeople - their body language, questions, their interactions with the demo product
- Talk to a few of them to understand their buying process and motivations, online v/s offline concerns
- Identify if consumers are willingly spending their time and effort visiting different offline retail stores, just so that they can understand different offerings, narrow down to a specific brand and get a better deal
- Go over the product description material available in e-commerce stores. Identify what's available and what's missing, from a consumer research perspective

From his subtle reactions over phone, I got a feeling that he wasn't so enthusiastic about these activities :-)

Paul Graham in his essay, "18 mistakes that kill startups" brings up an important point -
" you create wealth in proportion to how well you understand the problem you're solving, and the problems you understand best are your own."

Immersing into the problem is extremely important
- to identify the motivations and emotions that run in the minds of consumers
- to get more clarity on the context and situation
- to understand the current alternatives available to consumers and why they are (or aren't) solving the problem

Steve Johnson suggests a possible solution to understand the problem
"Do the job to understand the job and its challenges. In most cases, the customer doesn’t know he has a problem. A product manager must understand the customer’s situation better than the customer does, and use that knowledge to develop a solution for the customer."

I'm quite impressed by movie stars who get into the shoes of their characters to understand their daily routines, pains and struggles, challenges and wins. I would love to use a service that enables such passive interactions between target consumers and a product manager. Potential startup idea, maybe?

I'm actively looking for a framework that helps to unravel consumer problems along all possible dimensions. If there is none, maybe I'll give a shot at it !

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